Bogged Down in Palestine 14.8.2009

Bogged down in Palestine

Jakarta Post, Indonesia | Fri, 08/14/2009

President Obama’s commendable effort to get Israel to once and for all renounce it’s damaging settlement policy to get the Middle East Peace Process moving again has actually turned out to be counterproductive, at least for the time being.

By highlighting Israel’s present reluctance to compromise on the settlement issue, it has emboldened the Palestinians and their Arab and Muslim supporters to take a hard line and not agree to confidence building measures vis-à-vis Israel. Those very measures have always been at the heart of getting reluctant players on both sides to move forward again.

We only need to remember Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s courageous visit to Jerusalem in 1977 to point out the importance of such gestures. This visit helped ease Israeli hardliner opposition to the Peace Agreement with Egypt enabling Israel’s withdrawal from Egyptian territory and eventually resulting in a Peace Agreement that both sides have adhered to religiously for more than 30 years.

Alas, on both sides there doesn’t seem to be a statesman of the caliber of the late Egyptian President or, for that matter, Israel’s late PM Yitzhak Rabin who made his bold and conciliatory move by committing Israel to far reaching compromise with Palestine and signing the Oslo agreements with late Palestinian President Arafat.

The fact that both, Sadat and Rabin were murdered by radicals in their own country who opposed any reconciliation with the other side, serves as a strong disincentive for politicians who contemplate bold moves.

As the situation stands now, Palestinians and Israelis do not appear ready for the sacrifices that a real peace agreement will require from them. The Palestinians are split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank with few prospects for compromise.

Reflecting the US pressure on Israel, the Fatah movement’s recent convention in Bethlehem (the first since 1989 !) agreed on a tough, not too confrontational platform which naturally will try to compete with Hamas hardliners while maintaining Fatah’s position as the partner to make peace with.

At the same time, Israel, governed by a right wing coalition, is primarily concerned with the Iranian nuclear threat and maintaining the settlements to the extent mounting US pressure makes that possible.

This leaves the US administration with the unenviable task of trying to nudge the unwilling opponents forward.

The surrounding bystanders, Arab and Muslim countries who could be supportive with confidence building measures, are hedging their bets preferring to wait until Israel will give in to US pressure.

President Obama is so far reluctant to play hardball preferring to put his trust in the common sense of Palestinians and Israelis alike who by now must surely recognize the inevitability of a negotiated solution based on the Clinton proposals put forward at the Camp David Summit in 2000 and major elements of the Saudi Peace Initiative of 2009.

Under such difficult conditions the likelihood of progress is indeed slight.

The only bright spot is a courageous Arab leader, the Crown Prince of Bahrain, Shaikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa.

He contemplated on the huge economic potential of Arab-Israeli cooperation wrote in an Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post on July 16 that the Arabs have not done enough to talk to the Israelis and have not done a good enough job demonstrating to Israelis how their initiative can form part of a peace between equals in a troubled land holy to three great faiths.

No doubt, as usual, the naysayers on both sides can justify their inaction. Let’s hope that the players on the margins, Arab and Muslim countries who are not directly involved in the conflict, will consider contributing actively and positively to remove the impasse in the Middle East Peace Process.

The writer is a retired Israeli diplomat who served in Southeast Asia from 2000-2003.

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